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Book Reviews
'Jacob Wonderbar and the Cosmic Space Kapow'
By: Nathan Bransford
(Kindle Edition / Penguin Publishing / $10.99)

Description: Jacob Wonderbar is used to detentions, but when a spaceship crashes near his house, he finds himself in a whole new level of trouble. After swapping a corn dog for the ship, he and his two best friends, Sarah Daisy and Dexter, take off on a madcap adventure. They accidentally cause an epic explosion, get kidnapped by a space pirate, and are marooned on planets like Numonia and Paisley, where the air smells like burp breath and revenge-hungry substitute teachers rule. And that's only the beginning . . . It turns out that there's an entire colony of space humans, and Jacob's long-lost father just might be one of them.

Verdict: It's not just a Harry Potterite Holy Trinity at work here, you know. Yes, JACOB WONDERBAR AND THE COSMIC SPACE KAPOW does have a main guy we all like to think we can identify with, classroom terror Jacob. He has his buddy, see-it-coming Dexter. And he has this girl-with-a-heart-of-gold around, Sarah Daisy, who hates hearing her name because it makes her "sound like the girliest girl on the planet."

But a fourth and boyishly grinning character slips onto the E Inked pages of this middle-grade corker, too. You can spot him early on. He only thinks he's hiding. Works for CNET. Used to be a literary agent whose representation many writers coveted. Now blogs as frequently as the rest of us eat. All about the wondrously self-absorbed, crisis-craving, and sorely stretched-out-of-shape planet he left. (That would be the weirdly retrograde world called Publishing.)

The MG dudes are free of all that grownup stuff about who and what Bransford was and is. They'll simply find the writer-guy of this thing enunciating a horrible truth that needs saying: Sarah Daisy is allowed to return to class, while Jacob and Dexter get detention, "because I'm a cute little girl." (And she's slick enough to be angry about that. So you let her hang with you.)

Less cute bigger girls who work as substitute teachers may want to hide their "ancient metal thermoses." Jacob has landed on their burp-breath planet in a spaceship with "a serious attitude problem."

Everyone else--and this includes those MG dudes' parents in their "hotshot meetings"--can rejoice that Bransford is the intelligence lurking behind the literature. Not for nothing does poor Dexter buzz with excitement because "the silver man" who gives them their spaceship chose the trio "out of all the people in the entire universe" because "it's our destiny!" Only to be told, "No. I picked this town at random."

Like the bearer of a lightning-bolt scar that keeps washing off his forehead in the shower, Bransford's pleasure in setting things up and letting his dry-witted kids knock them down is as wide as his universe is wacky. "Those were simplified Chinese characters," Sarah says when the attitudinal spaceship's controls are suddenly labeled in something unreadable. But "huge missile launcher" is fortunately legible among the controls when Jacob needs just that--or thinks he does.

Here on Earth, where those self-absorbed publishing people have put an awful lot of emphasis on good reading for girly girls, it's just plain swell that Bransford is a guy writing for guys. Want to get mad at me for saying so? Fine. But you can holler all day about boys not reading enough. Or you can give boys something sassy with their own sensibilities, something that might get an idea or two off the ground from the launch pads of their own imaginations. How cool that Bransford has chosen Option Two.

And so it is that when you reach gag time--when Sarah hugs Jacob, saying into his chest (yes, four times), "I'm so happy, I'm so happy, I'm so happy, I'm so happy"--Bransford knows that Jacob "never seemed to remember how strong she was until she did something violent."

As Jacob learns it's important to stick with his friends "so they could be there for one another" and remembers that he never even apologized for making his mom miss a meeting, it's great that a certain royal guy gets Jacob by the shoulders and tells him: "That's why you're the hero, Jacob Wonderbar. The universe has big plans for you."

Sequel! Good. When fellows read about the goofs who set off fire sprinklers at school turning around and fixing things so well that the universe has big plans for them, those fellows get smarter, nicer, more heroic, themselves. Their buds named Dexter grok it and are down with that, too. And the smartest girls around them, like our Sarah, will always claim to be the first to figure this out. Once they see it happen. Even if they do start hugging.

The text has aptly supportive illustrations by Christopher S. Jennings, whose work might remind you of William Haefeli's cartoons for The New Yorker. Greg Stadnyk made the most of Jennings' work for the cover design, in this release from Penguin's Dial for Young Readers.

Congratulations to Nathan Bransford.

"You're supposed to say something nice back, loser," Sarah would say here. "We'll work on that."

Review by: Porter Anderson